O.M. Days by Raf Rundell
Raf Rundell was 23 years old when he first wrote a song taller than himself. There he was, working by himself in the studio, and suddenly he wasn’t alone anymore. The thing he had created filled the room. It was alive and it viewed its creator with indifference. While its intentions were unclear, it was clearly up to something.
This was the first step on the path which led to Rundell’s immense second album, O.M. Days. It has, admittedly, been a long journey. After years of working as a DJ, he formed the dance-pop outfit The 2 Bears with Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard. This was followed by the mini-album The Adventures of Selfie Boy Pt. 1 (2016) and his full length debut album Stop Lying (2018), which took his good-time party sensibilities, deepened the song writing and showcased an musician gleefully willing to experiment. Both of these were recorded without Rundell facing up to the fact he was becoming a solo artist. “I didn’t really admit to myself that’s what I was doing,” he says. “They were made here and there and cobbled together over a long period of time. It got to the point where I was kind of embarrassed about all the time I spent playing and experimenting and not having anything to show for all this time. I embarrassed myself into finishing and releasing them.”
Rundell received a call from Andrew Weatherall after Stop Lying was released. “You’re getting the hang of this – keep going!”, Weatherall instructed him. He did as he was told, although in truth it wasn’t as if he had any choice in the matter. For Rundell, time in the studio continually produces work that surprises and amazes him. He is compelled to continue working to see what monster appears next. Rundell is too busy trying to understand the strange forces pushing him onwards to notice where he is going. He does not consciously set out to create giants.
“I don’t have any grand artistic vision a lot of the time,” he explains “I’m mucking around mostly and waiting for it to happen and occasionally it does, but I couldn’t tell you how or why. You’re following something but you can’t even say what most of the time. You put all the work into setting something up but you don’t know how or why or what it’s for. You go at it with goodwill and hope everything will turn out okay.” This is a way of working that bypasses the ego and opens the artist up to ideas that come from beyond them. It is the way of the fool and the magus. If you open a door, you don’t know what will step through.
One interpretation of the title O.M. Days is a reference to Operation Mindfuck, the 1970s counterculture movement created by Robert Anton Wilson, the great American agnostic and co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Operation Mindfuck used chaos, confusion and misinformation to trick people into throwing off old and outdated ways of thinking. It has since become the clearest and most insightful model we have of the ‘fake news’ networked media landscape of the 2020s. Operation Mindfuck also serves as a way forward, arguing that imagination and humour will steer us better than any grand plan or roadmap.
The cover of his first album Stop Lying was painted by the London artist Ben Edge. It showed Raf on home turf in front of Dawson’s Heights, the distinctive ziggurat-shaped social housing block in East Dulwich. This block is said to be inspired by Italian hill towns, sunken liners and alien monasteries. It stands on Dawson’s Hill, a surviving stretch of green South London parkland that no developer has ever dared build on. It is a stone’s throw from Peckham Rye where an 8-year-old William Blake looked up to the branches of a tree and saw an uncountable host of angels.
If you look at it mythologically, you realise that Dawson’s Hill is named after a giant called Dawson, who has lived in the imagination of the hill from time immemorial. Dawson is both male and female, human and vegetation, and a new world grows in its womb. It has been waiting patiently for centuries to be called up into the minds of South Londoners. This is this giant critter that you see on the cover of O.M. Days, in another painting by Edge.
Edge and Rundell have, for reasons they can’t entirely comprehend, concocted a rite for the first full moon after the summer solstice. This will result in this giant – also known as Tommy Hill Figure – being created on Dawson’s Hill. “Ben’s been digging deeper and deeper into ancient myths, the green man, all the stuff that’s been co-opted by organised religion,” Rundell explains. All this chimed with him because he is a magnet for signs and symbols. He has been ever since his Mod-loving parents named him after the RAF roundel symbol.
“We’ve been talking about this sort of stuff a lot,” Rundell continues. “The rite we’re planning is about the birth of the new and using the coronavirus as a catalyst for that change, like a full stop to the way things were before. The corona is called the spark in our ceremony, although we’re not being too specific about the virus because this is a thing we hope to do annually.” Folk traditions mark the memory of the old, but there is no reason why they can’t be co-opted to mark the continual birth of the new instead. There were giants in the land in the old days, and we will see their return in the new world being born at this exact moment. Rundell and Edge are admittedly unable to explain exactly why they are compelled to perform this rite, but it’s best not to fight these things. It will all make sense one day, with hindsight.
This is the backdrop to the album, a record far larger and more confident than its creator could ever have imagined. Unlike his itinerantly created previous records, O.M. Days was entirely recorded in the same Forest Hill studio, with a string of collaborators including Chaz Jankel from the Blockheads, the R&B and soul singer-songwriter Terri Walker and the inspired social and political commentators Man & The Echo. “I love collaborating with people – like Lias Saoudi or Andy Jenkins, who are both on this record – that’s where it’s at for me,” Rundell says. “I worked really hard on this one. And although I had no plan about where it was going, I always have a notion about how I want things to sound. I had a particular idea about that.”
No-one was more amazed by the results than he was. From the good-time dance anthem Monsterpiece to the soulful soaring immortal classic I’m Always Fly or the open-eyed moment-capturing acoustic hymn The Ides of Albion, this is a rich, hugely confident, and highly accessible album. It is a record that manages to be both joyful and wise – a rare combination indeed, and exactly what we need right now.
Raf Rundell has amazed himself again. Emerging from the studio shocked at the joyful beast that is O.M. Days he thinks, “How did that come for me?” We may never know how or why, but we can be eternally grateful that Raf Rundell creates giants.
John Higgs, Brighton 2020